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The Team That Couldn’t Tank Straight

Ever since the Orlando Magic dealt Dwight Howard in 2012, the team has embarked on a dazed and confused rebuild that has no end in sight. Here, a Magic fan reflects on five years of wilderness, whiteboards, and many, many big men.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In October of last year, I looked at the Orlando Magic roster and determined that they could compete for the playoffs this season, after four years of tanking. The article was called “For the Orlando Magic, at Least the Worst Is Over.” Here’s how that worked out for me:

The Magic are currently wrapping up the fifth season of their rebuild, and here’s what they have to show for it: On Monday they suffered the worst loss in franchise history, losing to the Bulls by 47 points (remember, they were trying to win this season). They enter their final game of the campaign with the fourth-worst record in the NBA and, crucially, they lack a player with superstar potential. There are things that took longer and produced less results: Warren Beatty worked on Rules Don’t Apply for over 40 years and it made $3.7 million at the box office. The Browns have searched for a quarterback for more than 15 NFL drafts now and may start Cody Kessler next season. But the Magic are not looking for any specific position or making a Howard Hughes biopic. They are looking for hope and there is none.

It would be easy to forget the 2016–17 Magic, but I think they will leave behind a legacy: as the darkest timeline for rebuilding teams. Also, for this:

A photo of what was clearly a whiteboard with all of their offseason options — one of the greatest front-office fiascos of all time. So, that’s two legacies.

The post–Dwight Howard years have been bad and bland. As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann recently pointed out, three of the four teams involved in the 2012 Howard trade have been the worst teams in the league since the deal went down. Howard not only wrecked the Magic, he wrecked everyone involved in Howard wrecking the Magic. Howard now finds himself attending auctions for the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, but at least he’s not playing for Orlando.

(<a href="http://imgur.com/wDdswpC">Source</a>)
(Source)

Think about the other long-term rebuilds happening in the NBA: The Sixers have the process, and the Kings are a tragicomic nightmare. The Magic are as bad as both without any of the advanced tanking philosophy or infamously gross incompetence. Everyone laughs at the Kings, but they forget the Magic exist.

This summer marks a significant point of the Magic’s road to nowhere. The local Orlando media thinks general manager Rob Hennigan is on his way out. He will go down as the worst general manager in team history, and there is some fierce competition for that mantle.

Here’s where things stand with the roster: Elfrid Payton will one day be great at running a second unit on a contender. Nikola Vucevic will one day win Sixth Man of the Year as a scoring big who doesn’t have to worry about defense. Aaron Gordon could be the third-best player on a title team. Mario Hezonja will end up the greatest San Antonio Spur of all time. All of the lottery picks — Victor Oladipo, Gordon, Payton, and Hezonja — were defensible in a vacuum, but not one exceeded expectations for their draft spot and none of them at any point showed even a glimpse of the talent necessary to make the Magic a top playoff contender. Hell, at least Lyle Lanley, the salesman who sold Springfield a busted monorail, gave the residents some entertainment before everyone figured out that doom awaited.

This rebuild has now lasted longer than the Shaq-Penny glory years. Vucevic, who the team got for Dwight Howard, has moved into the top 10 in scoring in team history and passed Shaq on the franchise rebounds list. This is the basketball version of those “Wanna feel old? Here’s the Nirvana Nevermind baby now!” tweets. Magic fans have seen more of Vucevic than they did of Shaq.

Whiteboard fails aside, Hennigan has had some bad luck: The ping-pong balls fell his way in 2013 — one of the worst drafts of all time — and he got less lucky in 2014 (picking fourth in the Andrew Wiggins draft) and 2015 (the fifth pick in the Karl-Anthony Towns sweepstakes). But he does have a special talent for taking assets and turning them into nothing. Ryan Anderson became Gustavo Ayon. Tobias Harris became Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings. Kyle O’Quinn became cash. Maurice Harkless became a top-55-protected pick in 2020 (really). Channing Frye became Jared Cunningham and a second-round pick. Oladipo and a lottery pick became Serge Ibaka, who in turn became Terrence Ross and a late-first-rounder.

The goal of a general manager should be to rip people off in trades. Even if Harris’s career has stalled, he was perceived as valuable at the time he was traded. Oladipo certainly commanded more than what the Magic eventually got in return. They should have just kept players like Anderson, O’Quinn, and Harkless. A group of players the Magic traded away would handily beat the current Magic. That is not a good sign.

There’s also the little matter of team strategy. Hennigan decided to go big this year, literally, trading for Ibaka and signing Bismack Biyombo. That shifted Aaron Gordon to small forward and Evan Fournier to the 2. The thinking was that height and defense had become undervalued. In the new, small-ball, 3-point-drunk NBA, the Magic could out-tough teams by exploiting this inefficiency. In my day job as an NFL writer, I hear this sort of argument every once in a while from general managers in regard to the running game. Since the NFL has become predominantly a passing league, and defenses have gotten smaller as a result, GMs sometime get the bright idea to build a team around the ground game and run over said smaller defenses. The problem with this thinking in football, and Hennigan’s in basketball, is the same: The reason those sports shifted to new models is because those new models are by far the most efficient and effective way to win games. Theranos is undervalued right now, but that doesn’t mean you should buy it. Sometimes things are undervalued for a reason.

The Magic are the worst 3-point-shooting team in the league. And their defensive rating is at its most discouraging level since they traded Howard. The roster has clearly confounded first-year coach Frank Vogel, who has a leg up on the past few Magic coaches because he does things like “call plays” and “look like he’s trying.” He said that Oladipo, who he never got to coach, was one of the reasons he took the job. He’s expressed disappointment at the team’s lack of winning habits and mentioned many times over that he is forced to play guys out of position. This is not the team he wants — and if, as expected, he stays and Hennigan goes, it’s clear there will be a massive rebuild this summer. Another one.

As a Magic fan, I’ve watched a lot of bad basketball. I have photos of being held as a baby by Greg Kite, Otis Smith, and Terry Catledge. Terry Catledge. I’ve been around bad basketball all my life. I own a Bo Outlaw jersey. I’m wearing a Bo Outlaw jersey right now. But this is the worst season in Magic history. A friend recently asked me who the Magic should draft that would fit into their plans. I answered that they should not worry about need because there is no plan. They should hope for lottery luck and draft anyone regardless of “need.”

There is no whiteboard.